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Nonsectarian Liberalism

Cato Unbound just started its October symposium, For a New Liberalism, with a lead essay by Gerald Gaus, entitled The Range of Justice.

Richard Arneson; an egalitarian, Eric Mack; a libertarian, and Peter J. Boettke; an Austrian school economist, will discuss Gaus’ proposal for a nonsectarian liberalism.

Excerpt from Gaus’ essay:

Perhaps the original hope was that the systematic use of human reason would lead enquirers and citizens to converge on the truth about “distributive justice” or “the role of the state,” but any impartial observer must conclude what should have been obvious all along: as in so many matters, the free use of human reason leads to sustained disagreement and a proliferation of sects. This is not a mere episode on the way to consensus and enlightenment, but “a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy.”[1] Such was the deep insight of the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century, John Rawls. Because the use of our reason on these matters is inherently controversial, political philosophy must, as he tells us, apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself. Liberalism’s founding insight was the recognition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversial religious truths could not be the basis of coercive laws and public policies. The task is now to apply this insight to philosophizing about justice itself. This is an extraordinarily difficult lesson for many. Can it really be that I should not endeavor to ensure that my society conforms to my “knowledge” of justice? (Compare: can it really be that my “knowledge” of God’s will should not structure the social order?)

Public reason liberalism seeks to respond to this crisis in the credibility of political philosophy by grounding public rules and institutions in the reason of all. Political institutions, social structures, and basic social rules are politically or morally justified only if they can be endorsed from the perspective of each and every free and equal “reasonable and rational” person. Public reason liberalism sets aside the illiberal dream of founding social and political order on a shared truth about the nature of justice, replacing it with the aspiration of finding terms of association on which good-willed and reasonable citizens, disagreeing about basic aspects of the good life and the ideally just society, can converge. This conception of liberalism is literally revolutionary—it seeks to return liberalism to its founding insight that we must live together without sharing our deepest visions: that liberalism is an alternative to sectarianism, not simply a form of it.

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